Technical Debt: Why Government Unemployment Sites Crash

Over 25 million Americans have had to file for unemployment in the last 4 months — an unprecedented number caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment offices are overwhelmed, and websites to apply for unemployment insurance have experienced crashes due to the high volume of traffic. This makes applying for unemployment nearly impossible. So why are some websites, such as streaming sites like Netflix or Hulu, able to handle record-high traffic, but government websites cannot? The truth is – the majority of government systems have been operating on decades of technical debt that has never been repaid. 

Technical debt is the concept that reflects the implied cost of reworking a system in the future by opting to choose the easy and quick solution to the problem, instead of using a better approach that would take longer. Many old government systems and databases are built on rapidly aging software and hardware that rely on COBOL, a coding language dating back to the 1950s. COBOL was used as the coding language before the invention of the internet as we know it today. But COBOL is also slowly becoming a forgotten skill, and programmers have had to be pulled out of retirement during this pandemic to attempt to repair and optimize the systems. This technical debt has been accumulating, with interest, for decades. Replacing these government systems will be incredibly expensive. But just like with other debt, you cannot just cut the credit card in two and pretend you are out of debt. 

For the last 25 years, Congress has steadily approved budget cuts to states’ funding for modernization of their systems. Without additional funding from the federal government, it is difficult for states to bring their systems up to today’s standards. Legacy systems also become more expensive to maintain and are much more vulnerable to cybersecurity threats, and this will ultimately cost the taxpayer more than just upgrading and bringing these systems into the 21st century. But until then, the lack of investment in modernization means that critical systems such as the unemployment website will continue to be strained. 

Author: Quinn Johnson 


Burke, M. (2020, March 18). Coronavirus: State unemployment websites crash as applications surge. Retrieved July 01, 2020, from 

Kelly, M. (2020, April 14). Unemployment checks are being held up by a coding language almost nobody knows. Retrieved July 01, 2020, from